Detroit is a city with a complicated history of environmental and social controversy, which is the reason it was chosen for the 2017 High Impact Leadership Trip (HILT) focusing on environmental justice and social activism.
A total of 12 students and one faculty advisor, Dr. Tess Varner from philosophy, participated in a wide range of activities – from volunteering at urban farms to going on a tour of Detroit. The experiences aimed to challenge us, push us to learn more about different forms of injustice, and empower us to make a difference through social activism and grassroots movements. HILT has always been a great way to connect students from many different disciplines on campus and build a community that is passionate about sustainability.
We started the trip by going on a five-mile hike led by the Sierra Club at Highland State Recreation Area just 50 minutes north of Detroit. We learned about the natural history of the area with its rolling hills and forests. The next morning we visited the Heidelberg Project, a conglomeration of culture, history, and art through reimagining an almost abandoned neighborhood in the heart of Detroit. Tyree Guyton, the artist behind the project, wanted to tell Detroit’s story through challenging peoples’ perception of art. After walking through the project, we went to the Detroit Historical Museum and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. Both museums gave insights into the history of Detroit, but we were more heavily impacted by the second museum. It showed the raw, uncomfortable history of slavery and racial injustice in the United States, which pushed us to reflect on our own privilege in society. Each night of the trip, we gathered as a group to talk about the highlights of the day, which was a good way to promote dialogue about complex topics.
One of the trip’s highlights for many of us was a visit to the Grace Lee Boggs Center to nurture community leadership. There we met up with a man named Rich who took us on a guided tour of the city of Detroit. He provided a lot of useful information and asked questions that allowed us to think critically about ourselves, our values and our place in society. The tour included visiting a cemetery, an abandoned car factory, a factory still being used today, an alternative school, an urban garden, and a local bakery and sandwich shop.
Rich asked questions, such as, “Are we going to continue sacrificing decent human treatment for a prosperous economy?” and “What would you do with these abandoned buildings to promote a just community?”
These questions resonated with the group and created a framework of thinking that shaped the rest of the trip. After the tour, we visited the Oakland Avenue Urban Farm where we got a full tour of the property and volunteered by weeding out a few of the garden beds. In addition, we helped clean the yard at the Hope House, an interfaith organization dedicated to community-building through nature. Our group felt grateful to help out at these organizations after learning about the resilience and dedication of the Detroit community.
On our way back to Minnesota, we stopped in Chicago to further engage with the topics of environmental justice and social activism. However, most of the time there was dedicated to having free time in order to relax after five full days of planned activity. We also stopped at Dr. Stewart Herman’s house, a 107-year-old home in Minneapolis that was completely transformed into a net-zero facility with geothermal, solar panels, and advanced insulation technology.
We ended the trip in St. Peter, Minn., for the 22nd annual Building Bridges conference, an event fully planned by students at Gustavus Adolphus College. This year, the conference focused on fostering grassroots movements and involved two keynote speakers, Nekima Levy-Pounds and Winona LaDuke, and a variety of interactive workshops throughout the day. The conference provided a toolkit of knowledge that is necessary to becoming an activist and community builder within a grassroots movement.
Upon returning back to campus, the Detroit HILTers are ready and motivated to create change. At an individual level, many of us are interested in making changes such as becoming vegetarian to reduce their environmental impact, joining campus organizations such as the Student Environmental Alliance and the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, having conversations with peers about issues like environmental racism and gentrification, and applying the knowledge to class research projects and presentations.
On campus, students have many ideas to promote environmentally conscious initiatives, such as setting up rain gardens to reduce sidewalk flooding, hosting a conversation with students to share their experience, volunteering in the Fargo-Moorhead community, and possibly carrying on the tradition to lead a HILT themselves. Though this trip enhanced our motivation to create change on campus, everyone and anyone can get involved in the movement for a more just and sustainable community on campus and beyond.
For more information, personal stories, and reflections from students that participated in the trip, please visit our blog at https://concordiahilt.wordpress.com/category/detroit-environmental-justice/. If you have any questions, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sam Ferguson '17 is an environmental studies and global studies double major.